Are Lazy Teachers Ruining Generations of Potential Talent?

To the 10-20% of excellent teachers that exist, I apologize and thank you for what you are trying to do. The problem is that most of the other 80% thinks they are in the 20% and do not appreciate the damage their shoddy teaching practices are doing to our youth.

Recently Kenneth R. Lutchen wrote an article in Fortune Magazine entitled, “This Is the Best Major For Every Wannabe CEO”. He wrote,

“As we approach graduation season, it’s worth noting that the number of engineering graduates has been rising in recent years and is likely to do so again this year. But a large percentage of this increase is driven by students who do not reside in the US and can return home after they complete their studies. This is a problem for U.S. innovation, particularly since engineering draws fewer women and almost no underrepresented minorities, such as Hispanics and African-Americans.
The percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees has stayed around 20% for a decade, according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). In 2014, foreign-born U.S. residents earned 8.5% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, 47.4% of master’s degrees, and 54.8% of doctoral degrees. Moreover, the ASEE reports that since 2008 the number of US citizens receiving a bachelor’s degree in engineering has increased only 33% compared with an increase of 74% for international students. That is good news for the home countries of these international students. And while the US certainly wants to attract the world’s best talent to its universities, it might not bode so well for U.S. competitiveness and innovation in the long-term, especially in industries like defense that require US citizenship.”

An Educational Testing Service study offers new insight in that it compared U.S. millennials—those between the ages of 16 and 34—with their international colleagues in roughly two dozen countries. The analysis found that more than half of U.S. millennials lack proficiency when it comes to applying reading and math skills at the workplace.

The problem is that the problem is beginning much earlier than college.

If Everyone Is A Leader, That Surely means Teachers
teachers influence many kids, for good or bad. If that influence on others means they are leaders then we should expect to see the skills of a leader,coaching, mentoring, and developing others, in the classroom. Unfortunately that is not happening as the statistics above indicate.

The Worst Managed Organizations
In the past I have read articles that describe the worst managed organizations. Typically the organizations mentioned have been hospitals and schools. I do not know about hospitals, but I can tell you that many leaders in our educational system are more focused on looking good externally than they are with ensuring high quality around the very reason a school exists – education of our youth. While this article will focus on shoddy and incompetent teachers, the fault for this problem continuing lies at the feet of school leadership for allowing this abysmal performance to continue.

The Worst Teacher
Recently I heard the story of a gifted student who was in an honors math course in school. This student is a middle school student taking an honor’s high school math class. When I heard this student’s experience, it struck me anew that the problem with talent is not primarily with disinterested kids; rather, lazy teachers are de-motivating and stymying the growth of potential talent. We write about the need for great leadership principles in business but these same principles are sadly lacking in numerous classrooms and their absence is taking a toll on talent.

This particular student experienced a harsh lesson from a teacher in how not to teach. Unfortunately the student is too young to understand what the problem really is. All the student thinks is that (s)he cannot do math.

What created that belief?

First, each day the teacher raced through material quickly. Often the students would finish a lesson on day and be tested the next day with little or no time to practice. There was little attempt to build depth but rather the teacher was able to check off the box to show that the all the required content had been covered.

Second the teacher gave nightly homework but assigned the problems that did not have the answers in the back of the book. Clever, huh? Prevents cheating. No way. In fact students who were motivated to excel (it was an honor’s course after all) had no idea whether or not they did their homework correctly. There was no way to check their work so they did not know what they did not know. As a result, significant classroom time was spent the following day calling out answers to homework and answering questions. This took away from the limited and precious time to teach the new content. (But the teacher did not have to arrive at school early to tutor!)

Third the teacher’s grading masked what the student could actually do. Rather than look at a student’s work and assess what they did (right or wrong), this teacher just looked at each problem’s answer. If the answer was right, full credit was given. If a minor mistake was made in the answer, significant points were subtracted rather than ensuring that students received credit for what they did correctly. A student may have set up a problem correctly and may have done the problem appropriately but made a simple calculation error or changed a positive to a negative sign. Because significant points were deducted for these minor types of mistake students ended up with very low grades and a false sense of their true understanding. For example, students who were doing “85” work were assessed as a “70”. (This kind of inaccurate feedback would never be accepted in a business environment: it goes on daily in our classrooms).
The teacher graded tests the day (usually within an hour) they were given. No taking tests home to grade for this teacher. If the work could not be done inside the six-hour school day, it was not worthy of time outside of class. Of course this speed was possible since the teacher did not look at how the student arrived at an answer, only the answer. This cursory view of a student’s work inhibited the teacher from providing any pinpointed coaching so al students saw was how poorly they performed (and it was their failure, right?)

Finally the teacher regularly assigned problems in class, for homework and even on quizzes but then gave very different and different types of problems on the test. A clever way to understand who could do critical thinking right? It did not work out that way. Instead of testing the student’s knowledge of and ability to apply what was learned, major credit was deducted if the student could not figure out complex types of problems even though the first time they had eve seen them was on the test. What had been taught in class was largely ignored.

The Evaluation
The school administration evaluated this teacher’s performance as excellent. All administration saw was that grades were posted quickly and were given consistently. All they noticed was that all required content had been covered. This teacher was rewarded for quality work and, as a result, her approach to teaching was reinforced in her own mind. Of course no one looked at the talent that fell by the wayside.

The Consequences
This honors student studied under this teacher for one school year. The teacher accomplished one thing. This student no longer believes that (s)he can do math. Next year this student will take regular math with the attitude that math is a subject that few mortals can do. Over their high school career this student will likely take the minimum number of math courses and electives like art and drama will fill the gap. (Why do we wonder where all our engineers have gone?)

Society is clearly experiencing a dearth of leadership everywhere but one of the areas of greatest need is in the classroom. The impact of shoddy teaching is seen by the numbers of students who flee from any coursework that smacks of STEM. Instead of teaching and developing future talent and preparing students for the jobs of the future, school has become a place where the top priority is to make lazy teachers’ jobs easy.

Some will say math is an exact science and it must be treated as such. Answers are black and white. There is no leeway. That is true if one is talking about the correct answer to a problem but it is not the way one coaches and develops talent. A good teacher starts where learners are and builds them to proficiency. Our country is paying a price for teachers who fail to develop the talent of students who could have performed well if the proper teaching would have existed.

The Right Way
Before one responds that the job of a teacher is impossible to do in today’s society, let me recount the story of a different math teacher I knew. This person wanted to grow talent and see students succeed. Classes were carefully prepared and taught. Depth of understanding was as important as speed. Homework was given so students could check their answers that night and see what they did not know. The teacher came in early every morning to provide extra tutoring. Tests focused on assessing how students performed against what they had been taught. When grading quizzes and tests, every error was not treated as equal. A computation error was not nearly as serious as misunderstanding how to set up a problem correctly. Students got an honest assessment of what they really knew. The consequences? The super smart students still excelled. The students who did not think they could do math or who were afraid of math flourished. The unmotivated and disinterested students still failed. The gain was in the group that could have fallen by the wayside. In this group confidence in their ability to understand and do math was created. Several of these students went on to become doctors. Under the first kind of teacher they would probably have been librarians.

So why don’t teachers do it right? This second teacher’s approach took time and effort. What was required could not be done in a six-hour school day and tests were not graded within an hour of completion. Extra hours were spent in preparing lessons, grading and coaching. But kids flourished and developed and a lot of them learned to love math and they ended up in STEM jobs.

High Expectations Are Being Crushed
“Nearly 90 percent of all recent college graduates considered themselves well prepared for their jobs. Unfortunately for young employees, only half of hiring managers shared that opinion…We hear all the time about the ‘skills gap,’ the gap between the skills needed to succeed in the professional world and the skills with which young professionals leave college,” said Katie Bardaro, vice president of data analytics at PayScale, in a news release.” The data we’ve collected show that even though their education may make recent college graduates feel prepared to enter the workforce, only half of hiring managers agree with them; managers feel crucial skills in recent graduates are frequently lacking or absent.”

Youth today think they have the potential to tackle certain challenges. Fortunately, they are right but unfortunately for many of them that potential was never developed under teachers who cared enough to give more than their six hours a day.

As reported in Atlantic Monthly, “As a country, we need to address the question of whether we can afford … to write off nearly half of our younger-adult population as not having the skills needed to effectively engage as full and active participants in their own future and that of our nation”.

A National Crisis
As I read Lutchen’s article in Fortune, I the root cause of the problem he describes is clear. Talented kids who need coaching and developing to realize their talent in math and science are being funneled off into the social sciences (no right or wrong answers there, just essay questions!). The reason? Incompetent or lazy math and science teachers do not know how or are unwilling to coach and develop talent. As a result we are losing generations of potential.

The form and window dressing of teaching occurs every day. To administrators it looks like substance of education is happening. But at least in math and science, that substance has been lost. Poor leadership and, as a result, poor talent development is rampant in our classrooms.

This is not an appeal to lower standards. Rather it is an appeal for math and science teachers to step up and do the teaching and coaching required so that the gap between high standards and the student’s current performance levels can be bridged. To paraphrase a famous cartoon character of old, “We have met the enemy and it is lazy teachers!”

In business we read about and even observe the need for leaders to be coaches. This is important, but the opportunity to provide coaching and development of talent that really has an impact occurs many years before the workplace. Until we, as a country, get serious about quality teaching and until school administrators begins to take their job seriously so that they expect, define, observe and evaluate quality in the classroom, we will continue to get the same abysmal level of performance. Unfortunately, the generations that are being educated today will pay the price, as they become the unemployed and under-employed of the future.

Copyright 9 By 9 Solutions 2016 All Rights Reserved


  1. The answer to the title question is “Yes and no.”
    First, teachers are expected to do far too many things that have little or nothing to do with teaching. They have become surrogate parents, and that is a serious problem that is only exacerbated by government meddling. Second, government insistence on standardized testing has created a “teach to the test” mentality — one that does not facilitate actual learning in depth. Third, teachers’ unions have made it virtually impossible to accurately measure and evaluate teacher performance. Fourth, you get what you measure — and how you measure that is critical. We measure teachers by the performance of their students on tests. Perhaps we should measure them by the ability of their students to get and perform jobs in the private sector. Perhaps colleges should report under-prepared students to their high schools.
    First and foremost, we should get government the hell out of education and give parents the ability and resources to choose the schools for their children competitively — something that scares the daylights out of the teachers’ unions (which are there only to protect the incompetent.

  2. Doug, thanks for another excellent article.

    When educators and others tell students that they can do anything they want to do we set them up for failure. Wanting to do is not the same as doing it well enough to earn a paycheck. Also, future employees need to be careful when selecting their path to career success.   

    “Incompetent or lazy math and science teachers do not know how or are unwilling to coach and develop talent. As a result we are losing generations of potential.”

    It is not only lazy math and science teachers but also employers, guidance counselors, school administrators, school boards and politicians at all levels.

    Employers raise the minimal educational requirements for jobs to try and hire employees who will become successful. Unfortunately, job success is not about college degrees. The concept of job fit explains why so many degree holders do not become good employees; they lack the talent for job success. Come to think of it, unsuccessful employees will still be unsuccessful even if they acquire a college degree if they do not have the talent for job success.

    In 1968 I was teaching a trigonometry class for surveying for airmen who were cross training into the Site Development Specialists career field, aka Civil Engineer’s Aide. I asked Jack what he was doing before he transferred into the Site Development Specialists career field? He said, “I was in missile maintenance” which I thought would be better than Site Development Specialists. I then asked Jack, “Why did you transfer?” He replied, “I failed the human reliability test.” When I asked him, “What does that mean?” he said, “I don’t know.”

    Months later I was entering the drafting office and noticed a trail of blood drops from the parking lot all the way to drafting room and right to Jack’s drafting table. I asked, “What happened?” I was told that the sergeant said something to Jack that Jack didn’t like so Jack punched the window and was taken to the hospital with a severe cut on his hand.

    It wasn’t until my MBA, class of 1992, that I learned how assessments predict future behaviors especially when stressed. Jack popped into mind as I pictured him punching a window and realized that had he stayed in missile maintenance he may well have punched a hole in the side of an intercontinental ballistic missile or his sergeant’s head.

    Years ago I met with a Human Resources person at a well known international technology company (25,000+ employees worldwide) and we discussed their hiring process. I was astounded to learn that for sales positions they hire former college football players because “they are used to running into brick walls.” This approach is no more ineffective than hiring for alma maters. The HR Rep told me she agreed it didn’t make sense but she would not argue with the Sales VP since he says, “We are successful in sales because we have $3 billion in cash.” Well, it is not up to me to fix their process so I said thank you and left. A month later my nephew who works at the company called and said his CEO is very upset that only 30% of the sales force meets their quota. Success means different things to different people.

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